McLean Bank pleaded guilty yesterday to charges that it failed to tell the Internal Revenue Service about sizable cash transactions that helped drug ringleader Christopher F. Reckmeyer launder millions of dollars from illegal drug sales.

The bank, but not bank officials, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Alexandria to intentionally failing to file reports on 23 occasions between July 16, 1980, and April 27, 1981. The cash involved totaled $620,000 -- part of more than $2.25 million deposited at the bank in an account controlled by Reckmeyer beginning in the 1970s, according to a statement by the office of the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.

Financial institutions are required by federal law to tell the IRS about cash transactions exceeding $10,000. The IRS uses the information for criminal investigations.

In January, federal prosecutors issued a 122-page indictment of Virginia brothers Christopher and Robert Reckmeyer and 24 others, alleging that from a few marijuana sales in 1972 at Langley High School in McLean, the Reckmeyers built a marijuana and hashish empire that stretched from coast to coast and grossed more than $100 million over a decade.

On May 17, Christopher Reckmeyer was sentenced to serve 17 years in federal prison after pleading guilty to masterminding the drug ring. Robert Reckmeyer was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

McLean Bank's guilty plea followed a grand jury investigation conducted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Kent S. Robinson during the last six months. The Drug Enforcement Administration, the Internal Revenue Service and U.S. Customs also worked on the case. Sentencing is set for Jan. 24 before U.S. District Judge James C. Cacheris.

Although the maximum penalty for the bank's violation is a $500,000 fine, terms of an agreement between the government and the bank limit the possible fine to $100,000.

Bank officials were not available for comment yesterday, but an unsigned statement was issued by the bank.

"The United States has concluded that no individual director, officer or employe of the bank has committed any criminal violation of the currency reporting requirements of the U.S. Code," the bank's statement said.

"Instead, the government's prosecution is based on the novel legal theory that the bank can be criminally liable for 'knowingly and willfully' failing to file currency transaction reports based on the 'collective knowledge' of its employes -- in effect that some employes of the bank were aware of the bank's obligation to file such reports, but different employes were aware of the particular currency transactions.

"The bank has decided not to contest the government's interpretation of the law so that this matter, which involves transactions that are five years old, can be put to rest," the bank said.

Bank President Roy L. Browning was on vacation and not available for comment, according to a bank secretary. One bank employe said the problem was due to "lack of communication . . . . It has nothing to do with anything . . . underhanded.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Robinson said the charge was not based on a "novel" legal theory.

"The bank is saying people in management knew that currency transaction reports were supposed to be filed," he said. "The tellers who actually received the cash deposits were aware of the transactions that gave rise to the need to file. Those two groups of employes never quite hooked up -- that's the bank's claim.

"There is going to be a sentencing in this case, at which point both the bank and government will be able to say more about their position in this case," Robinson said.

Robinson said his office has investigated other banks and found "no indication that any other banks that the Reckmeyers were using failed to file currency transaction reports." The Reckmeyers used "several banks throughout Northern Virginia," he said, without identifying the banks. "Certainly any other cases of this sort which come to our attention will be vigorously prosecuted," he said.

Documents filed with the court disclose details of the cash transactions. Since the early 1970s, more than $2.25 million in cash was deposited on 173 separate occasions in an account called Crancy's Inc. and controlled by Christopher Reckmeyer, Robinson said. Beginning in 1978, many of the cash deposits exceeded $10,000.

But the McLean Bank filed only six reports to the IRS on the Crancy's account, involving about $200,000 in deposits, the U.S. attorney's office said. No reports were filed on 61 transactions involving more than $1.5 million.

Forty of the 61 transactions occurred before July 7, 1980, when the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. put into effect new regulations concerning the filing of transaction reports, said Robinson.

Up until that date, it is "arguable" whether the bank was required to submit reports, he said.

McLean, a federally insured and state-chartered commercial bank, is in the process of being acquired by James Madison Ltd.

In 1984, in a case that indirectly involved McLean Bank, a federal bankruptcy judge in Alexandria appointed a trustee to manage the affairs of the Port Royal Development Corp. after witnesses brought by Mount Vernon Savings & Loan Association testified that the development company had mismanaged accounts for the Port Royal Condominiums on North Pitt Street in Alexandria.

Testimony at the bankruptcy hearing from a certified public accountant revealed that more than $50,000 in earnest-money deposits from persons with contracts to buy condominium units at Port Royal had been deposited in a savings account at the McLean Bank, instead of in escrow accounts as required by Virginia law.

At that time, documents showed that less than $10 remained in that account on Dec. 31, 1983, and that withdrawals had been made to finance other developments directed by Port Royal's principal officers, Eugene Lawson and Charles H. Schools. Schools, who had been chairman of the board for the McLean Bank until shortly before the controversy surfaced, was replaced by Roy L. Browning, but no one had been willing to say at the time why the change had been made.

Now, Browning is president, and the chairman is John G. Broumas, according to a bank employe.

In 1974, McLean Bank nearly collapsed under the weight of a wine investment scandal that touched its two top officers, bank officials said at the time. About $2.5 million in loans had been made to investors in the venture, which subsequently collapsed, leaving the young bank with a potential loss of $1.8 million.

The chairman, J. Michael Burry, was an investor in the scheme, which the Securities and Exchange Commission was to describe as fraudulent. Only the overnight infusion of $600,000 in cash by an investors group saved the Northern Virginia bank from having to be liquidated or merged with a holding company.

The bank's president, Walter P. Johnson, was removed from office for approving the wine loans and was indicted in 1977. He pleaded guilty to embezzlement and misuse of bank funds and was sentenced to six months in federal prison.